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Why does virtually every recent American-made animated feature film — particularly those of the computer-generated kind (for hand-drawn, you must look to Japan or the Cartoon Network) — feel the aching need to end with a big, lavish, five-minute-but-feels-like-an-eternity dance sequence, in which the movie’s heroes and gathered throngs celebrate the victory over whatever impending evil has been dispatched?
Don’t answer that. Just know that by the time the requisite dance sequence fired up in Robots, I was struck by how un-elated I was. And then I realized something far, far worse. I had been bored senseless for the past hour and a half, feeling as though my mind had been scooped out and plopped in a stale sugar cone.
Though nowhere nearly as bad as last summer’s horrific Shark Tale, Robots is a deeply dented film, boasting a creaky, clankity storyline and an assortment of characters that might as well be as interchangeable as their mechanical parts.
Directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, whose Ice Age was a veritable frozen treat, and written by comedy veterans Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell, Robots is at least a noble attempt to create something from nothing. Unfortunately, at the end of its 95-minute ride, it still pretty much amounts to nothing.
Set in a world of widgets, gizmos and gadgets, where machines are sentient beings (think a kinder, gentler Matrix), Robots follows the adventures of Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor), a wide-eyed, naive inventor who moves from the homey Rivet City to metropolis Robot City. There he hopes to impress Mr. Bigweld (Mel Brooks), a garrulous, rotund titanium icon who supplies robot society with its spare parts and homespun inspiration. Bigweld’s motto: “You can shine no matter what you’re made of.”
Bigweld, it turns out, is missing, sequestered away by his company’s vice-president, Rachet (Greg Kinnear). A sleek, streamlined ‘bot, Rachet does away with the spare parts system because there’s no profit in it, insisting robots purchase full upgrades instead. “Why be you when you can be new?” is the company’s new motto. Those robots who can’t afford the overhaul, are scheduled for meltdown, literally, in the underground smelting company operated by Ratchet’s domineering mother, Madame Gasket (huskily voiced by Jim Broadbent), who seems all too thrilled to commit robocide.
Rodney, with the help of a clattering group of misfiring misfits — including the always-on-the-verge-of-disrepair Fender (Robin Williams) — embarks on a mission to free Bigweld and save robot society, an act of heroism that will enable everyone in Rivet City to show off their best robotic movies in a big, climactic victory dance.
Robots has a few clever moments, especially early on as Rodney is “born” — or, more precisely, assembled by his parents (resulting in a wry 12-hour labor joke) — and during a fast and furious segment in which the lad has his first taste of Robot City’s mass transit, an insane hybrid of Rube Goldberg contraptions and Whammo-inspired gizmos. But when Robots stoops to filling time with fart jokes, it stoops too low (but it’s still not low enough, obviously, for the smaller kids in the audience, who howl like hyenas at the merest Dolby-enhanced sound of escaping gas).
The only thing that distinguishes Robots from other CGI films is its decidedly retro look. Wedge and Saldanha forgo the usually blindingly bright color schemes, opting instead for sophisticated, muted tones that are easy on the eyes and don’t charbroil your brain. At the very least, it’s a pleasure to look at.
But not, unfortunately, to listen to. The vocal work is bland and unengaging, with McGregor, Brooks, Kinnear and, as Rodney’s mechanized love interest, Halle Berry, turning in performances that are as flat as sheet metal. Only Broadbent, delectably malevolent as Madame Gasket, and the reliably manic Williams (“You can bunk with me — we’ll just ignore the gossip,” he chimes to Rodney) manage to bring their characters to life. Still, even at his most desperately frenzied, Williams can’t keep Robots from hitting a predictable, formulaic overdrive. Ultimately, the movie strips its own gears and winds up as another pile of junk on Hollywood’s ever-growing scrap heap.